She had switched off the alarm, sitting at the edge of the bed, when a thought struck her. What if she could trade her life with someone else- a fresh clean slate to write a new story, perhaps? Continue reading
Last week, when I read Corinne’s post on #PeriodPride, I was very inspired to find out more about it – more so, because it is a topic that is considered such a stigma and an embarrassment. I have always felt so strongly about this issue that I knew I had to put in a post to say the things that I’ve always wanted to say. Here goes mine:
People call it by various names …’Leak Week’….’Crimson Tide’…’Flo Jo’…’riding the cotton pony’. Instead, why not just call it periods? That’s just what it is, isn’t it?
Women have to deal with it every month – it makes us cry, scream, wallow in misery, pop pills, lie low, lie-in quietly, overwork, because, most of the time, we can’t seem to spell out that we need a little rest. Instead, we suffer in silence, pretending everything is normal, suffering quietly because we do not wish to talk about it.
It’s a perfectly normal function of a female body – this routine shedding of the uterine linings every 28 days, when you bleed for 3-7 days each month. It’s perfectly normal to feel abdominal cramps, moodiness, depression, food cravings, fatigue, headaches, or worse still, migraines and bloating, acne, tenderness in the breasts and muscle aches. That is quite a lot of things happening to your body during those few days. Believe me, it is tough during those days. It really is!
Knowing what to expect makes you ‘prepared’ before the day first arrives in your life – the ‘menarche’. In some societies, there are traditional ceremonies associated with this ‘coming of age’. I remember this because I once attended one, and I found it strange that this girl (she was only 12) dressed as a bride and showered with gifts, as she sat silently before a roomful of ladies. I’m clueless what she was going through but, that day, she certainly didn’t look happy to me! I was still unaware of what it was because I had two more years to go before my ‘first’ day arrived.
Here, I feel, mothers have a duty to explain things to the girl child before she experiences it for the very first time. If you are prepared, you may already feel half the battle is won. I know I did because my mom had explained everything to me well in advance. What I was not prepared for, however, was the emotional turmoil that came with it each month, and it took me a long time to accept my body, but, only after going through years of inner turmoil, and realising how challenging it was to be a girl with all those changes happening to your body.
I clearly recall, what a shocker it was, to discover how the world at large saw it, especially when dealing with social mores and religious customs. This was most obvious when we were visiting elderly female members of the family, who kind of stigmatized you during those days, instead of helping you to deal with it.
Through the centuries, one of the earliest things driven into our collective consciousness is the shame and embarrassment that comes associated with the word ‘periods’. From a young age, girls are taught that they’re not meant to talk about it or discuss it in public or in the presence of men. A ‘period’ is thought to be so shameful that it is made a taboo. So much so that parents have an awkward time discussing it with children. Even period commercials show a blue metaphorical liquid, instead of red to signify blood!
Historically, menstruation has always been seen as a stigmatized condition that has not only reflected, but also reinforced women’s perceived lower status in relation to men. Feminist scholars believe this negative attitude towards women’s bodily functions is rooted in the stigmatization of menstrual blood that is seen as one of the “abominations” of the body and has always reflected a gendered identity among women. As a result, women have been socially conditioned to perpetuate that by continuing to thrust the tradition of social seclusion on bleeding women, in varying degrees, through customs and tradition, that have been handed down from one generation to the other.
So, how do we make the change?
My thinking is, any shift that needs to be made in such a situation, is an obvious challenge because it involves changing mindsets, one of the most difficult areas to work upon!
Religious practices only help to make this worse. I know Hinduism considers menstruating women ritually impure, barring them from entering kitchen premises and temples, participating in holy rituals, touching certain food items, touching other males and females and sometimes (rather bizarrely) even talking loudly. This, in many ways, has been humiliating, insulting and demeaning to women.
This is exactly, what we need to change.
Time and again, we’ve seen how religious practices have only helped to ensure that women stay in hiding, and the topic of menstruation is generally slipped under the carpet. If we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. In urban societies, it is the sense of ‘shame’ that forces women to suffer in silence. In rural communities, the problem is far worse.
Can you see the link between period stigma and women’s economic oppression?
Firstly, girls are not allowed to talk about or reveal that they experience periods. Next, we make it extremely expensive and inaccessible to actually conceal it – pads are a luxury for most rural communities, and tampons are not a practical solution for most societies that are extremely protective of women’s virginity. Hygiene is a contentious issue.
For a lot of women, being silent about it and the fact that it is expensive to clean up, happen to be the two main factors that make them end up staying at home each month, missing school and growing up to feel ashamed about their bodies. Moreover, when accidents do happen and a girl stains herself, boys often make fun of them and this only aggravates things further. When the girls miss school, they lag behind the boys, because they lack the knowledge, the information and the confidence which immediately puts them at an economic disadvantage.
Truth be told, if you feel you have no power, you will behave like one who doesn’t have any. It is as simple as that. This can happen to anyone – irrespective of gender.
It perpetuates a cycle of women that have low self-esteem, lack of information and lack of physical and emotional resources that can alleviate them out of poverty.
Although menstruation stigma is only one of many systemic factors that perpetuate gender inequality, it is one that is frequently ignored by all. The best way to deal with this is to combat the silence, and dialogue is the only way for innovative solutions to occur.
We have a lot of work to do as a society to build together a world, that understands and respects the needs of every woman. In this respect, Naari a social enterprise, working in the space of Menstrual Hygiene Management has been consistently working towards providing safe and hygienic periods for all women in sustainable and eco-friendly ways, by encouraging women to accept menstruation gracefully. Their three main pillars of strength are education about green menstrual practices, adoption of basic hygiene and safe disposal of sanitary products.
If any change needs to be brought about, the first thing that needs working upon is our attitude. As women, we need to talk more openly about it, accept that we may have difficult days, talk about why we are unable to be at our best on those days, when pain holds us back and become more accepting of our bodies.
This can only be done by addressing women’s needs more openly than we do now and ensuring that women especially from the under-privileged strata of society are offered the right kind of knowledge, support and resources that allow them to live with dignity which effectively helps to break the shackles that keep them tied to their homes.
It needs courage to let go of what we’re comfortable with, and embrace the new. Are we ready to accept #Periodpride? Are we ready for change?
On March 8, 2016, women all over the world celebrated the 106th International Women’s Day – a global day marked for celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women all over the world. More importantly, the day also marked a call to action for accelerating gender parity. For an event that originated way back in 1911, at a time when oppression and inequality were the key factors that urged women to become more vocal and active in campaigning with regard to discrimination, gender bias, better pay, shorter hours, better working conditions and effective labour legislation, women have indeed come a long way today from where they once stood.
Yet, an overwhelming majority of women believed that beyond the fun and the frivolity of the celebrations that has now come to mark this day, it has not made any impact on their lives.
They believe that very little has actually changed for them, as they continue to fight gender bias, discrimination and unfair laws that threaten their individuality and security both at home and at the workplace, thanks to the longevity and ingrained complexity of patriarchy thriving across all levels of society. In spite of the best intentions to highlight the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women in the various spheres of our activities, the day also ends up as a grim reminder of how way behind we are, when it comes to gender parity, which incidentally happens to be the theme for the IWD campaign this year.
Growing up, I was fortunate that my parents gave me the freedom to be ‘me’, encouraging me to be my own person, at every stage in life, be it in choosing which stream to opt for at high school, deciding what I wanted to specialise in for my higher studies and when and with whom to settle down in later life and so on. I consider that as the biggest blessing for me without which it have been impossible for me to stand my ground and do all those things that I did differently, in the later years.
And yet, I have had my fair share of experiences where my thoughts and beliefs came into conflict with that of the outside world that thrived in stereotyping women. One of my earliest memories as a child was of being questioned by a neighbourhood lady as to why I indulged in playing outdoor games with boys, instead of playing girlie games indoors. I suppose I never really bothered to answer her as the question was directed to my mother. But I do remember mother telling her that since she too loved climbing trees and being a tomboy as a child, I was only following in her footsteps. That became my first encounter with gender stereotyping, one that came to be followed by many more.
It was not just that one incident which made me think. The more I looked around, the more it left me baffled. What really bothered me was not merely the issue of the balance of power between the two sexes, but how men and women lived through very different realities. With the sole exceptions of a few, men generally allowed to live their lives the way they wanted to, on their own terms, whereas women were expected to give up their careers, their individuality, their rights to the family property, their self-esteem and even their self-worth in the course of keeping a happy marriage and a happy home.
The question was – was it really making the women happy? No.
All this caused havoc to my tender mind. I had decided early on, that I was certainly not headed that way.
Whenever I spoke out against gender bias, well-meaning relatives always reminded me to conform, in their subtle and not-so-subtle ways i.e., marry within the caste, be docile, follow every tradition as expected of you, do not question things and never speak up to criticise elders even when they are in the wrong. I listened to what they had to say, but went ahead and did everything differently, because none of what they said agreed with my basic tenets of equality between men and women, something I had always believed in, right from the very start.
Fighting on home turf was still relatively easy. But, the workplace was a different ballgame altogether! I have had numerous experiences of discrimination at the workplace. One such instance was at a job interview I went in for, as a trainee. The manager was extremely patronizing. Apart from quizzing me on the details of my father’s job and about every other member of my family, he kept persistently asking me if I had a boyfriend, or if I intended to get married in the near future. I wonder if he’d have asked me that question if I were a man. Of course, I never took up the job but it left me insinuated and humiliated and I vowed if I ever encountered such people again, I’d immediately walk out of the interview room.
Gender discrimination is everywhere, all over the world, but more so, within our Indian society.
Historically, power has been held in a dominant/subordinate paradigm, with women in the subordinate posture, which explains their exclusion from education, wealth and policy- making, all of which pivot around the questions of how human beings share and wield power together. In most parts of India, patriarchal norms have relegated women to secondary status within the household and workplace. This has drastically affected women’s health, financial status, education, and political involvement and have so far prevented women from accumulating substantial financial assets, making it difficult for them to establish their own security and autonomy. Things are certainly changing today but the pace of progress is still very slow. We need to see the change affect the lives of hundreds and thousands of women and the time to do something is right now.
At the individual level, lessons on equality between the sexes must begin in the formative years of every child, to leave a lasting impact on their academic, professional and personal lives. Boys and girls need to see each other as equals, working together with common goals and shared responsibilities. In the same way that girls are taught to be financially independent when they grow up, boys ought to be taught housework so that they learn to share the load of housework and appreciate the work that goes unnoticed all too often and almost always taken for granted.
At the workplace, women need awareness of their employment rights and work conditions, that covers specified working hours, leave, paid holidays, protection against harassment, social security and access to equal pay and benefits, in order to be on par with men with the same qualifications and experience. This, despite the fact that equal pay remains a distant reality for many even in the organized sector today.
Today, we have plenty of research that validates the strength of collaborative models of leadership which suggests how it is easier to unlock the human potential much more effectively when we recognize the strength that we have, where men and women share, cooperate, and collaborate.
Obviously, there is a definite need for men and women to share a common perspective and a common understanding on the issues that are bothering women. But, is it really happening? Are women on the same page with men, on this? Studies, surveys and opinion polls all seem to suggest otherwise.
Men and women see things differently.
How? Our lenses create our unique perspective through which we see the world. In all cases, this is shaped by experiences, unconscious beliefs and more importantly, our personal filters. When we cite gender bias, this challenge of reconciling the two opposing views becomes a considerable challenge, especially in the interest of improving the situation, in this case, giving women their equal place in a world dominated and ruled by men.
Studies have often shown how both sexes react in quite the opposite ways towards women’s career progression and gender parity. In fact, men always tend to agree that much progress had been made towards women’s empowerment and career progression while women remain in vehement disagreement.
An interesting example of this is found in a Harvard Business Review article about Harvard Business School graduates, which looked at career expectations between graduating husbands and wives. The study found that half of the men thought their career would take priority as against all the women who thought their careers would take equal priority to their husband’s. When asked about major caregiver roles, 75% of the men believed their wife would take on most of the responsibility; while 50% of the women thought they would take on most of this type of work. In reality, it was observed that 86% of the women took on the major caregiver roles, exceeding men’s expectations!
It is the same ratio of disagreement in the rating given to diversity effectiveness among men and women, which proves that men and women are not seeing things in the same light.
So, what causes this discrepancy of world view? And who is right?
In fact, both men and women are right, based on what they are observing and what facts they give weight to, for their differing conclusions. The reasons for this are many. Men assume policy leads to positive impact. Women see that these policies as not leading to positive outcomes.
In many organisations, there is a wide gap between the formal programmes and the informal work culture, thereby creating the gap between what is espoused and what is practiced. So if men think progress is being made for women, they will place more weight on the facts they see and pay less attention to the impact of the impediments. Women will similarly focus more on the facts that confirm lack of progress and less on the advancements.
Who minds the gap?
Needless to say, the impact of this gap is always on the women whose gender identities continue to shape them, knowingly or unknowingly.
Both men and women are looking for similar things at work, which includes supportive colleagues, mutually acceptable values and challenging work that is commensurate with the role within the workplace. Based on their experiences, men might be more likely to achieve those work goals; women, on the other hand, may have experiences that create a diminished sense of satisfaction.
The onus is thus on effective leadership within the organisations to probe deeper in order to look for the possible reasons for bridging this gap between appearance and reality.
At the organisational level, working for parity is not just about bridging the gap. It is an economic imperative. Women’s advancement and leadership are central to business performance and economic prosperity. It therefore makes perfect business sense for organisations to use focus groups and internal workforce surveys to assess if hiring programmes, evaluation and feedback, career development and promotions, access to critical assignments, mentoring and sponsoring, and other inclusive practices are being reflected in the day-to-day processes and getting implemented properly.
Clearly, it is not enough to have effective policies and mechanisms if different groups see and experience the outcomes of these programmes differently.
Looking beyond: Changing mindsets
Policies and legal mechanisms alone cannot help in curbing the problems faced by women at the workplace –the bigger challenge is to change the mindset and the overall attitude and acceptance level of the people. Just letting women work outside home does not mean that society treats men and women equally. We need women to be more vocal and men to pro-actively support the issues and problems that face them at home and in their workplaces.
But, even more than that, we need a shared understanding of each of our experiences if we are to ever close the gaps in our world-views and make the changes needed to improve everyone’s lives.
Why take the #PledgeForParity?
The pace of progress in gender parity is so slow today, that given the present rate, the World Economic Forum predicts that it could well take until 2133 to achieve global gender parity. There is an urgent need for all individuals to commit to this initiative as parity cannot be achieved otherwise. To take this initiative beyond mere lip-service, the #Pledgeforparity campaign organised by the IWD 2016 is keen to see us get our act together by making a pledge to actually do something about it.
Let us do our bit to achieve gender parity more quickly – by helping women and girls achieve their ambitions, calling for gender-balanced leadership, respecting and valuing difference, developing more inclusive and flexible cultures or rooting out workplace bias.
I have taken the #PledgeForParity?. It is your turn now.
As you are already aware of, we are a couple of bloggers at Write Tribe, who have decided to do something special this Women’s Day Week. Between March 6 to March 12, we are writing about women and for women in our blogs. We are hoping that this might be small step but a sure one in the right direction in creating awareness on the issues and concerns facing women today and by doing so, become the voice of change that will hopefully inspire others to follow.
Anamika Agnihotri who blogs at thebespectacledmother tagged me yesterday and the next post goes out tomorrow at Parul Kashyap Thakur’s blog happinessandfood.com with her take on the issue, through her looking glass.
This week once again, two of India’s daughters made it to the headlines for reasons that were very different. One is no more with us, but her story of courage and grit lives on through numerous incidents that dominate the headlines every morning. Now, of course, once again, through a BBC documentary made by Leslee Udwin that was scheduled to be aired this week, but having been banned in India, will no longer be shown although there has been a telecast in the UK ahead of the Women’s Day. People are protesting, and in huge numbers, celebrities have not minced words either in their vehement protest against the ban.
The other is a 23 year old who has inadvertently become a poster girl for thousands of young Indian women who yearn to rebel against arranged marriages and make their own lives. Continue reading
Sad and disappointed to say this on Women’s Day 2015! I am being honest when I say India is no country for women! During the last couple of years there has been a sharp increase in the number of crimes against women. Moral policing has created more problems in this battle for equality and freedom. While we can say with certainty that women have marched ahead and progressed a lot more over the last 20 years or so, the sense of discomfort and an undercurrent of intolerance has also been brewing among certain communities to put an end to this sense of equality and freedom with which women have been changing their lives and gaining more control over their destiny. And alongside there has also been a wave of regression whose sole aim has been to put women back into time when they had no rights to either live their life or voice their protests or even claim their way towards a better and equitable world that is based on merit. It seems to me that after a long battle women continue to be relegated into the background time and again. The rise of a certain ideology is now forcing the debate of equal rights again on women. But what do we women think? I am increasingly feeling that this country is going quite the contrary to progress with the rise of sects and ideologies that deem women unfit to march alongside men as equal partners but as secondary citizens, stay subjugated and subservient to men. Equality is the birthright of every human being, it can never be a negotiable issue. Safety and security can never be dispensable. The fight for equal pay has been on for quite some time…well people are fighting over it the world over, so hopefully we are getting there, sooner or later. But, what is most alarming is that increasingly, with every passing day, the feeling is getting stronger and the message more emphatic – India is no longer a country for women. Continue reading